Twenty Performances, or The Unexpected Virtue of Birdman

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As per usual, the capper to the staggered countdown of the best films of the year is a listing of the names I would have scratched into an Academy Award nominating ballot for the acting branch had it somehow landed in my hands. Obviously I think these are all terrific performances, but I feel a little less fervor for the acting this year than is typical for me. Interestingly, the film represented most across these four categories didn’t make my top ten for the year (though it was a strong runner-up). With resolute honesty — about opposed to giving in to the tactical temptation to arrange my ballot to favor those performances I suspected needed a little more help to make the official list of nominees — this is the group I would have submitted.

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
1. Jenny Slate, Obvious Child
2. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
3. Reese Witherspoon, Wild
4. Essie Davis, The Babadook
5. Marion Cotillard, The Immigrant

I initially had this category ordered a little differently, until I took a hard look at it and determined that the somewhat unconventional choice is also the best choice. Slate really is marvelous in Obvious Child, investing the performance with personality that masks and then illuminates the conflicted emotions of the character. I’ll admit that I’m rounding up on the Cotillard performance out of regret for missing Two Days, One Night during its brief run in my town. As for the Oscars, I’m certain this is Julianne Moore’s category with the win representing a de facto career achievement award mixed with a sorry-it-took-us-so-long apology. At least her work in Still Alice is worthy, sidestepping the sort of egregious choice that elevated overdue Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman over deeply deserving Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. That noted, even Moore knows which film she really should have won for.

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
1. Michael Keaton, Birdman
2. Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
3. David Oyelowo, Selma
4. Miles Teller, Whiplash
5. Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler

While I join everyone else feeling outrage over Oyelowo’s omission from the Oscar list, I’m even more perplexed that Fiennes never got more awards traction for a film that everyone clearly loved. The Grand Budapest Hotel has a sprawling cast, but Fiennes is the clear center and the performance is a comic marvel. I also wish that the people knocking each other over to heap plaudits on J.K. Simmons found some room to celebrate Teller’s even stronger work in a more complicated role. I’m holding out hope that Keaton pulls off the upset on Sunday night, but I think all the precursor awards pointing towards The Theory of Everything‘s Eddie Redmayne as the likely winner accurately predict the Academy haven’t fully shaken off their predilection for physical affliction. Besides, seven of the last ten Best Actor wins have gone to performers in biopics. Indeed, the last time all four acting trophies went to entirely fictional characters was the Oscars presented for the 1997 film year.

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
1. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
2. Emma Stone, Birdman
3. Carrie Coon, Gone Girl
4. Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer
5. Kim Dickens. Gone Girl

As I noted above, I think this is a year of relative parity instead of one dominated by a few stunning performances. This helps lead to a phrase I once thought I’d never type: Patricia Arquette delivered the best performance of the year, regardless of category. She’s utterly marvelous in Linklater’s film and will deservedly win on Sunday night. It’s a shame that Gone Girl faded so much from the awards discussion. There was a time, however brief, when Coon seemed a sure fire and very deserving nominee.

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
1. Edward Norton, Birdman
2. Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
3. J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
4. Tyler Perry, Gone Girl
5. Stephan James, Selma

For a long time, I insisted that Simmons, the sure Oscar winner in this category, was actually a co-lead with Teller. I’ve given in and placed him here, in part because he helps me fill out a fairly soft category. There’s a part of me that would love to crunch together about five names next to the title Selma as my fifth nominee, but I know that’s cheating. James benefits from playing a particularly formidable figure in future congressman John Lewis. I give this to Norton by the slimmest of margins, thanks in no small part to the extra gleam he brings to a performance that sends up his own problematic reputation.

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